- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 29, 2009

SEOUL | Four South Korean fishermen held by North Korea after their boat strayed into northern waters will be released, and families divided for decades after the Korean War will get a rare chance to meet next month - the latest signs tensions are easing on the divided Korean Peninsula.

North Korea announced Friday it will hand over the fishermen and their boat to South Korean authorities across the eastern sea border at 5 p.m. Saturday, Seoul’s Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said.

The announcement came hours after the two Koreas agreed to hold a new round of reunions next month for families separated by the Korean War - the first in nearly two years.

Red Cross officials from the two sides concluded three days of talks at the North’s scenic Diamond Mountain resort with a deal to hold six days of temporary reunions involving 200 families beginning Sept. 26, according to a joint statement.

Millions of families were separated by the Korean War, which ended in 1953 with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. No mail, telephone or e-mail exchanges exist between ordinary citizens across the Korean border.

Following their first-ever summit in 2000, the two Koreas regularly held family reunions until late 2007. Then, ties frayed after conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office last year with hard-line policies such as linking aid to Pyongyang’s disarmament.

Friday’s agreement said the North and South will continue to discuss separated families and other humanitarian issues.

Pyongyang has reached out in recent weeks to Seoul and Washington following a series of provocations, including nuclear and missile tests, and international sanctions to punish the communist regime for the defiant moves banned under U.N. resolutions.

Earlier this month, the communist country freed two American journalists and a South Korean worker after more than four months of detention. It also sent a delegation to Seoul to mourn the death of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.

South Korean media reported earlier this week that Pyongyang invited Washington’s two top envoys to North Korea to visit in what would be their first nuclear talks since President Obama took office.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters on Thursday that the U.S. had not received a formal invitation from the North. He also said special envoy Stephen Bosworth plans to travel to Asia soon, but that he will not go to North Korea.

Four North Korean officials visited the U.S. last week to meet American relief organizations and discuss the resumption of food aid to the impoverished nation, Yonhap news agency said. But their trip did not include meetings with U.S. government officials, it said, citing unidentified sources in Washington.

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